By: Pavin Chachavalpongpun

Facebook has successfully monopolized the social media space in Thailand for more than a decade. Among Thailand’s 67 million people, 28 million are on Facebook. In 2012, reportedly, Bangkok topped the “Global Facebook City List,” having some 8.68 million users, more than any other major city such as New York or London.

Now that Thailand is in the custody of the military, which toppled the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014, Facebook is perceived as a vital platform for Thais to voice their frustrations and concerns about the deteriorating political situation. More importantly, Facebook provides a stage for users to share information different from that of the Thai state. In other words, the social media outlet allows users to challenge the domination of information by the junta.

Worrisome recent developments

But recent developments in the past weeks have immensely worried users. Eight people were arrested in connection with the Facebook page, “We love General Prayuth” which was set up to satirize Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. Two of the arrestees were also charged with lese-majeste, a crime of offending the dignity of a sovereign which carries a harsh sentence of three to 15 years.

What particularly concerns the Thai public was the junta’s ability to access private messages of those detained. According to the junta, the arrestees’ private message conversations featured anti-monarchy sentiment. After surveilling private chats, on May 6 the police arrested Patnaree Chankij, not because she had done anything wrong but because she failed to discourage a detainee from writing an insulting message in a personal dialogue with her on Facebook.

Patnaree is mother of Surawith Seritiwat, an anti-junta student-turned-activist. It was generally speculated that the charge against her was issued because the military wanted to punish her son, who has continued to defy the regime. Surawith has been detained and arrested at least 10 times since the coup.

Meanwhile, GuKult, another seditious Facebook page with anti-monarchy content, has been blocked, raising the serious question of whether Facebook has compromised its principles of promoting freedom of expression and respect for privacy for the sake of doing business in Thailand.

Government restriction request in 2014

It is true that Facebook in the past maintained its transparency by making public its “Government Requests Report.” In 2014, Facebook accepted a request from the Thai government to restrict Thai access to content reported by either the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Thai Computer Security Incident Response Team under local law prohibiting criticism or defamation of the king and royal family. The total number of content subjects restricted in 2014 was 35.

Meanwhile, it was reported that from 2013-2015, the Thai government requested Facebook to provide information on 16 users within Thailand who were suspected of writing defamatory statements against the monarchy. Facebook however refused to conform to the requests.

In the current case, two detainees said the authorities were able to access their personal inbox on Facebook without their password. The Thai authorities later confirmed to the BBC that they indeed could access those personal inboxes, legitimately. The confirmation stirred up anxiety over whether Facebook could be trusted when it comes to its obligation to defend users’ privacy.

As mistrust grew, Facebook was forced to reaffirm its stance of never complying with the Thai government’s requests for personal details of users, but declined to comment on the recent arrests and its involvement – or noninvolvement – in the leaking of personal data. Facebook also did not explain why GuKult was inaccessible in Thailand. My recent interview with a Facebook employee based in Southeast Asia indicated there could be a case of some of the company’s crews conspiring with the Thai government. But Facebook’s open cooperation with the junta would have to be executed by its headquarters in Menlo Park, California.

Climate of Fear

The fragile political situation has compelled the military to create a climate of fear among users of social networks. Thailand is among countries with severe penalties for computer crime. The military government has manipulated the Computer Crime Act to protect itself, while employing it as a weapon to undermine political opponents. Worse, as the royal succession is approaching, political uncertainties cast a long shadow over the future of the monarchy itself. Here, the lese-majeste law is also exploited in conjunction with the politicization of the cyber law.

Facebook’s ambiguous position has already intensified the worsening of limitations in freedom of speech. Leading social media networks like Facebook, have an important role in contributing to opening up society when it is suppressed under despotic rule. The nature of social media, which is relatively free and unrestrained, decentralizes sources of information, thus making the controlled Thai media increasingly irrelevant as a news source.  

Since Thailand has sunk into political turmoil, social media has been popularly taken as a stage for political campaigns, seen in the establishment of a myriad of political groups with specific agendas and clienteles, from the left, such as the New Democracy Movement (NDM), to the right and pro-monarchy, such as the Garbage Collection Organization. Facebook has lent itself for all kinds of political shades.

More importantly, social media reintroduces a participatory practice that is fundamental to democratization. Participating in politics no longer traditionally means going to the polling station or joining street protests, with the latter being illegal in Thailand at the moment. But it can be done online and possibly more effectively. Yet, the arrests of some Facebook users demonstrated that online activism might no longer be safe in Thailand.

Users Bail Out for New Site

Last week, the safety issue with Facebook saw a massive migration of Thai users to a new site, Minds. Bill Ottman, a co-founder of Minds, told me that users would not be exploited and surveilled, and that Minds does not have corrupt algorithms in the newsfeed like Facebook that limit organic reach, therefore allowing better interaction among users.

Unless Facebook makes its position clear regarding its relationship with the junta, it could lose trust among Thai users. Worse, it would become a factor that further deepens fear in a society where freedom of expression becomes a rare asset.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a political exile and an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. Heis an occasional contributor to Asia Sentinel